It was no big surprise but Manhattan hadn’t changed much in my absence. Traffic was as ridiculous as I remembered. That was something that wasn’t such a hassle in San Diego. The air in New York reeked of garbage and urine, a perfume I no longer found even remotely appealing. Truthfully I never really had; it was more like it was the smell of freedom to me because I wasn’t under my mother’s thumb.
It took going to California for me to realize that I wasn’t truly free in New York. Sure it was easy to get lost in a city so big. I could have disappeared if I wanted to. More than once I had considered doing just that. I remembered being at Grand Central one afternoon just watching people, trying to figure out where they might be headed, when the thought occurred to me that I could get on a train for anywhere.
A bus to Wyoming or maybe Colorado would have been nice. I closed my eyes and saw myself bundled up in a heavy coat and snow boots, watching snow fall on the side of a mountain. I had warning signs that my escape was looming on the horizon; I just wasn’t ready to break away yet.
My cab pulled up to the building I’d lived in for almost four years. It was an older building with fancy doormen posted outside and in the lobby to hail cabs, walk dogs or bring up packages for the mostly wealthy residents. I smiled as I passed them since they all knew me. Our apartment was on the ninth floor.
I rode up in the gold leaf elevator with a highly appropriate muzak version of “Rolling in the Deep” playing softly. I hummed along and stepped out of the car when it stopped. I walked to the left and dug my keys from my purse. We lived in apartment 909.
The key slipped into the lock and turned easily. I let myself inside and closed the door behind me. Bill had already started clearing out my things. I wasn’t going to be taking any furniture other than an oversized chair I’d bought that I loved to curl up in with a book or for a nap. Bill hated the chair but it was my favorite piece in the apartment. It spoke volumes about his character that he didn’t destroy it after what I’d done.
“You’re here.” I jumped out of my skin when Bill spoke behind me. I wasn’t expecting him to be there. Usually he was at the office.
When I turned around I was even more surprised. Gone was the preppy financial wiz who was always clean shaven without a hair out of place. In his place was this slumped over, frumpy lump with at least a week’s worth of beard grown in and hair in desperate need of washing. Jesus, what did I do to him?
“Bill?” I had to ask because it didn’t look like him.
“You look good. California agrees with you,” he told me. He was being sincere instead of bitter.
Because he’s in love with you, Sookie.
I couldn’t help myself. My heart got the better of me and I hugged him. Bill had obviously lost weight and he was in desperate need of a shower, but he needed a hug even more. He hugged me back and held onto me like a drowning man would grab onto a buoy.
“Come home, Sookie,” he whispered into my ear.
“I can’t, Bill,” I replied. I felt horrible for him, truly I did.
But I couldn’t go back to him either. New York just wasn’t home anymore.
He wasn’t home anymore.
“What did I do that was so wrong? What can I do to get you back?” Bill straightened up some, but didn’t move away from me.
“Honey, it’s not about you,” I told him. It was the truth. My decision to leave wasn’t about him at all. “I left because… because I don’t know me. I only know what I’ve been told my whole life. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong here, I swear.”
There was no way to explain it better than that. No matter what it was going to hurt him because he loved me. I was a jerk. He deserved to be with someone who could appreciate him; someone who was secure with themselves and their life. I just wasn’t that girl.
Bill’s hand slid up my arm, over my shoulder to my neck. He brushed his thumb over my skin in a soothing way, whether he was soothing himself or me, I didn’t know. His eyes were trained on mine as he leaned down to press a soft kiss to my lips.
I didn’t feel the flutters I used to but I kissed him back anyway. Right then I wasn’t thinking about what the repercussions of doing such a thing might be. I just wanted Bill to feel a little better. That meant I didn’t stop him when he started to pull me toward our old bedroom. Nor did I stop him when I ended up under him on the bed we used to share.
Sleeping with him was probably not the best idea but for some reason I couldn’t say no. Maybe it would help us both move on. So much emotion passed back and forth between us and I could tell the breakup had been total devastation for Bill. I wasn’t even sure I had the words to describe how awful I felt about it.
Piece by piece our clothes came off. It would be easy to say it was pity sex but it wasn’t really that. It was the goodbye we didn’t get the day I walked out on our wedding. All the guilt I felt about that seemed to be exorcised as our bodies moved together and even though there were a few minutes mixed in there when I could feel how angry he was at me for leaving; Bill was mostly distraught that I wasn’t coming back.
It was over between us.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered when he collapsed on top of me a while later. Both of us were breathing hard and sweating.
“I know you are,” he replied quietly. “I just don’t understand it.”
“When I put my dress on that day I felt like I was suffocating. Deep in my gut I knew it was the wrong thing for me to do and I couldn’t ignore it anymore,” I tried to explain. “Deep down I knew it for a while that it was all wrong, I just didn’t want to face it. I thought it would go away. I wanted it to because I do love you.”
“But you’re not in love with me,” he sighed.
“No,” I admitted. “I’m sorry, Bill. I was. I really was. When you asked me to marry you I was. I don’t know when it changed. I wish I had a better way to explain it to you.”
I wanted to say it was better that I left when I did instead of in ten years when we had kids and we hated each other, but I couldn’t do that. He wasn’t ready to think that way quite yet. Someday he would see for himself that I had done the right thing.
“You know I don’t agree with this, but as the old adage goes, if you love something let it go…”
“I never meant for you to get hurt in all this, Bill. I hope you know that,” I said sincerely. I really didn’t mean for that to happen but we all knew what good intentions paved.
“I believe that,” he nodded. Bill got up from the bed to start looking for his clothes. “I just… I wish you would’ve talked to me. You weren’t only my future wife, you were my friend. Friends talk.”
“I know, but how would you have reacted if I had told you that there were days when I sat at Grand Central and thought about getting on a train to anywhere just so I could disappear for a while?” He would have taken it personally, although I suppose it would be difficult not to do that. No matter how I sliced it, in the end I still wanted a life that didn’t include him– at least not in the way we had been planning.
“Not well,” he sighed. “Are you at least happier now?” Bill slipped on his shorts before he sat on the edge of the bed.
“I am,” I told him. He probably hadn’t seen it so I shifted the top sheet to show him the tattoo on my hip that would make Michelle shit a kitten if she saw it. “I feel free.”
He gave me a soft smile. “It fits you,” he told me. “Your mother would lose her mind.”
“I know,” I laughed quietly. “I rode on a motorcycle too. It was… You should try it, Bill.”
“Susannah, what has California done to you?” he chuckled.
“It’s shown me more of who I am.” I sat up in bed and tucked some of my hair behind my ears. “Is this really the life you saw for yourself as a kid, Bill? I mean wearing a stuffy suit all the time and schmoozing with all those fake business types, or did you dream of something less… old before your time?”
We never really talked about what we wanted in the future. We talked about what was expected of us and that was probably where we went wrong. What was expected and what we wanted weren’t the same thing.
“Honestly? Yes,” he admitted. “I love what I do. I’m comfortable in the suits. The only thing different is I saw a wife by my side, and that should have been you.”
“You’re going to be a good husband but I would have been a lousy wife,” I said. “After all the wedding stuff wore off I would have been staring down the barrel of a long life I didn’t want. That wasn’t fair to you and it wasn’t fair to me. It definitely wouldn’t have been fair to our kids.”
“Right now I hate you as much as I love you. That’s a weird place to be, you know?”
“It is. I don’t blame you for it either. I’d hate me too,” I said honestly.
“I uh… I’m going to go take a shower,” he said as he stood up.
“Okay. I made plans to stay at a hotel while I’m in town but if you want me to stay here…” I offered. I didn’t know if that would be too weird for him and I didn’t want to assume he’d roll out the welcome mat for me after everything I’d put him through.
“It’s probably best that you stay at the hotel.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “Do you want me to leave my key with the doorman when I go?”
“Yes, please,” he said sadly.
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him I was sorry again but I didn’t want to annoy him with it.
“You know, not right now because we both have some things to deal with but… Well maybe someday you could come for a visit in California,” I suggested. It was so cliché to offer friendship as a consolation prize, but it wasn’t like I’d stopped caring about him.
“We’ll see, Sookie.” He had no intention of visiting me.
I watched him walk into the ensuite. I waited until the water was running in the bathroom before I got out of bed and picked up my clothes. I went down the hall to the guest bathroom to do a little cleaning up myself and then I got dressed.
Sleeping with Bill wasn’t part of the plan but strangely enough, I didn’t regret it either. I didn’t know I needed it until it was happening. If there was one thing I was sure of right then it was that whatever I had with Bill was over.
It was time for both of us to move on.
“I slept with him,” I confessed to Amelia when I got back to my hotel room a few hours later. Professional packers were coming to pack my knickknacks the next day but I had packed my clothes and shoes into the boxes I’d had delivered ahead of time.
“Ooooh, how are you feeling about that?” she asked.
“It was sad. Usually you don’t know it’s going to be the last time so you don’t think about all the things you’d do differently if you know, except I knew so it was intense but… I think we both needed it. He’s so sad, Amelia.” My lower lip quivered just thinking about it. Contrary to what some might have thought, I wasn’t heartless. Not even close.
“What do you expect? I know it wasn’t easy for you to leave, but the way it happened probably had him confused as hell. Did you talk?”
“Yeah, we did. He understands better where my head is at. I know he’s still not happy about my decision but at least he knows it’s not about him. There’s really nothing he could have done differently to change the outcome here.” I kicked off my sandals and flopped back on the fancy bed.
“I’m glad you’re able to talk to him. If Tray and I were in your boat he would’ve burned everything I own if I left like you did.”
“I couldn’t see Bill doing something like that. Maybe if I had been cheating on him, but otherwise… He really is a good man, Meels. I know you think he’s boring but he treated me like a queen,” I told her. Some would say I was crazy for throwing him away. Maybe I was. Only time would tell.
“I know he did. You weren’t happy, though. You did the right thing leaving,” she said.
“I know,” I sighed. “Hey, while I’m here you want me to get some of that cheesecake you had a foodgasm over before?”
“Yes, and if you can sweet talk the kitchen at Shake Shack into giving you the secret to their cheese sauce, I would appreciate it.” She was serious. “And cookies from Levain.”
“Jesus, Dawson, are you pregnant?” I snorted.
“No but those cookies are the stuff dreams are made of and the cheese damn near gave me an orgasm.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Maybe the boss knows someone who can get me that recipe,” I suggested.
“Hmm, he might,” she agreed. “I’ll talk to him. Or you can flash him your cleavage. He’ll figure it out for you.”
I laughed and said, “Uh, no. Eric’s not interested in me that way. We cleared the air with that.”
“He’s a man with eyes. He wants to see your tits,” she told me.
“I’m aware he has eyes, goofus. That doesn’t mean he wants to see my tits.”
Except I was pretty sure she was right. I just didn’t have the mental capacity to go there at the moment.
“Okay,” she snorted.
“Hey what’s the smell? Oh right, it’s the smell of all the cookies you’re not going to eat,” I taunted.
“It’s not my fault you’re in denial,” she said. “I’ll pay double for the cookies.”
I sighed and said, “No, I’ll get you some. How many dozen do you want?”
I knew just two wasn’t going to cut it. She was going to put those bitches in the freezer and ration them. Hell, she’d probably put them in my freezer when I moved out so that Tray wouldn’t get them all.
“Four if they have them.”
“I’ll do my best. Anything else?”
I couldn’t believe I was offering to buy her groceries while I was in town but what were friends for?
“No, I think that’s it. Anything else is something I’d have to have fresh.”
“Okay. Well, if you think of anything just let me know. No pizza for Tray?”
I knew there was a place in Brooklyn he was in love with. It would be a hike to go over there but I’d do it for him. I certainly owed him after the way he’d been letting me crash at his place for the last month.
“No, I think I’ll talk him into taking some time off so we can go. I haven’t been on the east coast in a while and I’m sure Tray would like to see his uncle.”
“Eh, come out in the fall. It’ll be pretty and you’ll get to see the leaves turning for a change.” Central Park was beautiful in the fall.
“Sounds good,” Amelia agreed. “What time are you going to be home Thursday?”
I’ll be back on Wednesday night. I should be landing at Lindbergh just before eight,” I told her.
“Do you need a ride home?”
“Nah, I’ll take a cab.”
“Don’t be silly. Picking you up is not a problem, Sookie. The boys will probably be at Eric’s playing pool anyway.”
“Okay. Then I’ll let you know when I land.”
“Alright. I’ll let you go. Call me if you need anything.”
“I will. See you in a few days.” I hung up and dropped the phone beside me on the bed.
I lay there quietly for a few minutes before I got up and headed for the bathroom to take a long, hot shower. I could smell the city on my skin and it was gross.
I missed California.
When I caught a glimpse of my tattoo in the mirror it made me smile and I realized I missed Eric, too.